Hoarding the Past: Understanding Archaeology Collecting and Collections, Part 1


A clipped coin from the ‘Fleetwood’ hoard of late Roman clipped siliquae. Image courtesy of Matthew Ball, Harris Museum, Preston.

40 hardy souls gathered at Barley village hall on a misty, damp, Lancashire Saturday in early November to study the concepts of archaeological hoards. This is one of CBA North West’s regular themed conferences and we (including me as Chair of CBA North West) were particularly anxious to explore the impulse to hoard, as well as the meaning of ancient hoards and recent collected groups of items. Those meanings stretch beyond the ‘why was it deposited?’ and ‘by whom?’ to how are these hoards investigated to reveal their contemporary context, what is their after-life as a group and how such collections remain relevant in the early 21st century. The morning session focussed upon the contemporary context, after-life and relevance of archaeological collections and hoards.

Bryan Sytch, of Manchester Museum, began the morning looking at how and whether museum curators suffered from the ’dragon fever’ of hoard collection. The collections at Manchester Museum cover more than 100,000 objects spanning natural history and the humanities, including archaeology. Many of these objects were donated by rich industrialists such as local textile magnate Jessie Howarth who donated gave his Eqyptology collection to the museum and even paid for a new gallery. The museum has too many artefacts to present them all, and as a consequence sometimes there is a danger that the public might think that the curators are holding things back; refusing to share what they have. Bryan looked at the evolving attitudes to museum collections through case studies of several curators. Thomas Sheppard at Hull Museum from 1901 to 1933, sold part of the Hull collections to the British Museum to fund new buildings and displays. He enjoyed and promoted a racy image of himself not also as a heroic collector, but also as a swagman or highwayman. His dark side is shown by the J R Mortimer (d. 1901) collection of 60,000 objects gathered from excavated barrows and Roman and Saxon finds in the Yorkshire dales during the late 19th century and Edwardian period. This group was bought in 1913 but Sheppard was criticised, by amongst others that early pioneer of archaeology professionalism O G S Crawford, for not allowing access to archaeologists and the public until 1929. There was a lingering sense that Sheppard suffered from over possessiveness, but also that he lost interest once the collection was acquired, moving to the next object. Sir Henry Welcome (d. 1930s), made money from drugs business, collected items relating to medicine and medical equipment. He gathered four times as many objects as can be found in the Louvre. Welcome’s collection was split after his death as there was no way this could be displayed in one place. Bryan argued that these kind of collections are subjective and symbolic for the collectors, curators and the public viewing them. Is there a compulsion to collect for some people? In early 21st century with little monies available museums are now barely collecting anything. The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is helping to keep some flow of acquisition going if only fitfully, but museums like Manchester no longer want to be an encyclopedia of the past. Brian showed that the modern use of collections is to engage the public, especially children, in hands on activity – like putting together 19th century pottery – and in the process provides different ways to interpret the past. He concluded that early 21st century museums are about the visitors and their experience not the desire to collect.

Matthew Ball of the Harris Museum in Preston picked up the theme of what is a hoard and the impulse to collect with a study of the Fleetwood Hoard. This is a collection of silver siliqua, the primary silver coinage from the Roman Empire in the period AD 350-400. There are 391 coins from the hoard minted in 10 cities from across the empire but primarily from Trier and Milan, spanning the AD 360s to 402. Why was it buried and by whom? All the coins are clipped. By the mid-fifth century hoards usually contained heavily clipped coins mixed in with hack silver and gold as bullion. Fleetwood doesn’t have any hack silver and the coins are only slightly clipped, so it was probably buried before the AD 450s. Furthermore it was probably not buried by a wealthy landowner as the hoard was not very valuable in an early fifth century context. All of the coins had been scratched on the reverse, mostly in same location, on the right and these were ancient scratches. Matthew noted that this is very rare and frankly peculiar. Is it testing for true silver? Possibly not, as the marks are very shallow. But a few are scratched in the exergue at the bottom in the coins of Valentinian II and it turns out that the hoard can be divided into two separate weight groups according to the marks. Where was it buried? This is the most peculiar thing about the hoard. The 1844 newspaper reports call it a hoard of late first, second and early third century denarii found at Fleetwood. Many of the coins were uncovered by builders who threw other coins into the mortar on a building site. Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood bought what was left. His son in turn gave these items to the Harris Museum in 1883. W T Watkins, a Lancashire historian and antiquarian realised that this collection wasn’t the same hoard, as it was composed of siliqua not denarii. So what happened? Matthew argued that is seems probable that Sir Peter bought the wrong hoard: possibly it was mislabelled. Therefore the original hoard is lost. This ‘changeling’ hoard probably comes from east or southern England which is where the late Roman coins in such hoards are usually found.


A hog back tomb from West Kirkby. Image courtesy of Rob Philpott.

The last speaker of the morning was Rob Philpott, formerly of Liverpool Museums, talking about the Huxley Viking hoard. It was found in Cheshire by metal detectorist in 2007. It contained 22 pieces of silver, mostly arm rings that had been flattened and bent weighing 1.4kg. Perhaps they were squashed to make it easier to carry? There were a couple of nick marks that seems to be ancient attempts to test the quality of the silver. Notable on the arm rings was stamped decoration including Thor hammers worked in a Scandinavian tradition. These design are competent but not outstanding, and in places unfinished. Dating the hoard is tricky as there were no coins in the group. Similar decoration can be seen on arm rings in the Cuerdale Viking hoard, found on the banks of the River Ribble in Lancashire and deposited around AD 905-10. Bullion hoards like the example from Huxley were an important part of the Viking economy. Broad band arm rings of this type come mostly from Ireland so why should a group find its way to western Cheshire? Huxley lies in an area outside the main Viking settlement zone in North West England. However, the Vikings of Dublin were thrown out in AD 901-2 and after landing in North West Mercia were granted lands near Chester by Queen Ethelflaeda of Mercia. Place-names show this was in northern Wirral, but there are also Scandinavian place-names along the coast of south-west Lancashire, supported by a silver hoard at Harkirke near Little Crosby, and place-names along the Mersey estuary. Hnefetafl board gaming pieces were found at Mote Hill in Warrington when that was demolished in the 19th century, whilst Chester and the Wirral also have some Viking sculpture in the form of cross fragments. This includes several hogback tombs such a s a recently-found example from Bidston church which carries a bear design. There was also a beach head market at Meols on the northern coast of the Wirral producing many Scandinavian pieces. The only settlements so far excavated are at Irby and Moreton (in Hoylake, the latter with a radio-carbon date of c. AD 900 from grain at the bottom of an enclosure ditch). Thus the context of the Huxley hoard is the fluctuating fortunes the Viking raiders and Danish settlements of the first decade of the 10th century around the Irish sea.


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